SAN JOSE — The Nov. 8 election in the 17th Congressional District will be a rematch between two Asian American Democrats, incumbent Mike Honda and challenger Ro Khanna, and is proving to be as hard-fought as last time.
Honda, 75, was first elected to Congress in 2000 and has served in the State Assembly and on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and San Jose Unified School District Board. He was among the thousands of Japanese Americans incarcerated by the government during World War II.
Khanna, 40, an attorney and son of Indian immigrants, was appointed deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce by President Obama, served on the White House Business Council, and joined the Silicon Valley law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He teaches economics at Stanford University and law at Santa Clara University School of Law.
Khanna and Honda were the top two finishers out of six candidates in the June primary with 39.1 percent and 37.4 percent of the vote, respectively. In California primaries, the two highest vote-getters go to the general election, regardless of party.
In 2014, Honda defeated Khanna, 51.8 percent to 48.2 percent.
The 17th District, which includes parts of Santa Clara County and Alameda County, is the only district outside of Hawaii where a majority of residents are of Asian ancestry.
Honda’s endorsers include California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Speaker Emeritus John A. Perez, Speaker Emeritus Toni Atkins, State Treasurer John Chiang, State Attorney General Kamala Harris, actor/activist Danny Glover, labor leader Dolores Huerta, and former NAACP President/CEO Ben Jealous.
Lewis, one of the organizers of the March on Washington in 1963, said, “After being unconstitutionally interned based solely on his heritage during World War II, Mike knows the need to be vigilant when protecting our civil rights and liberties. Whether it be standing up for minority communities after 9/11, fighting for our nation’s immigrants, or being a proud voice for the LGBTQ community in Congress, Mike has proven to be an effective leader and a strong voice of reason and justice.”
“Mike Honda has spent his life fighting for those without a voice,” said Jealous. “He is committed to expanding opportunities for all to build a country that works for everyone. In this day and age we desperately need his sound leadership and dedication to civil rights in the halls of Congress.”
Khanna has been endorsed former President Jimmy Carter, who said, “Ro has the type of idealism, energy and deep commitment to public service that we desperately need in Congress. He will be a future leader for our party and country.”
Other endorsers include Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Milpitas Mayor Jose Esteves, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Jose Mercury News.
President Obama, who backed Honda in 2014, is not taking sides this time.
Investigation and Lawsuit
Khanna has emphasized that the House Ethics Committee is looking into allegations that members of Honda’s congressional staff worked on his 2014 re-election campaign, a violation of House rules.
In a political ad, Khanna’s campaign references the ethics charges and says that Honda “has been around too long, his record an embarrassment.”
Speaking at this year’s Democratic State Convention in San Jose, Khanna said the investigation disqualifies Honda from running. “It represents cronyism, it represents giving favors to donors and it’s wrong.”
In an interview with San Francisco public radio station KQED, Honda responded, “Violating an ethics rule is not breaking a law. There is not a criminal investigation.”
Honda filed a lawsuit against Khanna in September, alleging that Khanna’s campaign manager, Bryan Parvizshahi, illegally accessed data on donors to Honda’s campaign and used that data to get in contact with them. Parvizshahi was an intern for a consultant that worked for Honda in 2012. The lawsuit claims that Parvizshahi continued to access Honda’s fundraising data after leaving the internship and being hired by Khanna.
Khanna’s campaign denied all charges, calling the lawsuit “baseless and meritless, a total distraction.” However, Parvizshahi resigned as campaign manager. Khanna said, “He decided that he did not want to be at the center of a firestorm … and thought it would be a distraction.”
Honda said in a statement, “When I first learned that Mr. Khanna and his campaign manager had illegally accessed my confidential documents, I was shocked. What’s worse is that Mr. Khanna refuses to take responsibility for his actions or acknowledge any wrongdoing. Mr. Khanna claims to be the voice of ‘new politics,’ but this recent incident highlights that he and his campaign embody the absolute worst of Washington – lies, deceit, and conduct we would expect from radical Republicans or Russian hackers but not from someone who calls himself a Democrat.
“Mr. Ro Khanna has shown a complete disregard for the law and cannot be trusted. His conduct is unbecoming of any individual running for office and his severe lack of judgment, character and integrity is a clear indication that he is unfit to represent this district.”
A recent Honda ad depicts an Indian American strutting down the street, getting into a limousine and straightening his lapels. “Some politicians are bought and paid for before even stepping foot in office,” says the narrator, who accuses Khanna of supporting the outsourcing of jobs, favoring tax breaks for millionaires, and refusing to protect Social Security. The man takes a cell phone call from “Wall Street” and says, “Yo! Let me see what I can do.”
Scott Herhold of Bay Area News Group criticized the ad, stating, “Khanna wants to protect Social Security, scrapping the tax cap currently in place. He has written a book about American manufacturing and wants to create jobs in the United States as part of a plan to bring back money that companies hold abroad. He wants to close some of the more obvious tax loopholes for the rich …
“But there’s something more sinister at work here … The problem is that the Khanna figure does not simply portray one man. He evokes stereotypes and prejudices about Indian Americans, who occasionally face something analogous to the anti-Semitism that once did not bother to hide itself in America …
“Think for a minute what would happen if the Khanna campaign were to hire a Japanese American actor for an ad attacking Honda, showing him dealing with his high-rolling contributors … donors who gave him $1,000.”
Denying any anti-Indian bias, Honda said in a statement, “Like a boy who cries wolf, Ro Khanna is once again making false allegations. He is using the very serious issue of racism to divert people’s attention away from the fact that … Ro Khanna has been bought out by Wall Street billionaires, corporate fat cats and extreme Republicans.”
Honda told The San Francisco Chronicle that the attack was personal, not racial. “[Khanna] says he doesn’t take money from [political action committees], but he does take money from special interests. If he wants to take the gloves off, he has to be ready for everyone to take the gloves off.”
In an interview with The Mercury News, Khanna said of Honda, “He’s stuck in the same old, same old — and if you think the same old is going to solve the problems of the future, then you should vote for him. But if you think we need some new thinking, some bold proposals, some ideas that aren’t on the table, then you should vote for me.”
Honda responded that his seniority in the House is valuable and that Khanna has never held elected office. “It’s a lifetime of experiences, and in my case — the Peace Corps — being an educator and my years in local office that has allowed me to impact our community and this country in a positive way. I’m proud of my record — my constituent services, my ability to deliver for the district, and it’s why I don’t feel like my work is done yet.”